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You can’t always win in ‘Battlefield 1,’ and that’s the point

Though it started its life depicting the battles of World War II, the vast majority of developer DICE’s Battlefield franchise has been set in the modern era of warfare.

That’s in keeping with much of the first-person shooter market as players have known it for the last few years. As Battlefield pushed into modern and near-future warfare in the mid-2000s, developer Infinity Ward released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, abandoning its series’ World War II roots in favor of a more up-to-date setting. Modern Warfare, of course, was a breakout success. Almost overnight, it felt as if the first-person shooter market’s love affair with World War II had ended, giving way to a generation of games depicting contemporary conflicts with futuristic technology.

So it feels out of step with the rest of the FPS field to see DICE take Battlefield back into the past, rather than pushing into full-scale sci-fi, as Infinity Ward will be with Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare next month. Battlefield 1 doesn’t quite return to Battlefield’s roots, but it does abandon technology heavy FPS trappings to return to a bygone era of warfare, World War I.

Gameplay tweaks for a period piece

It seems like that could be a tough change for a developer to abandon the setting of its franchise, along with all the gameplay elements connected to it. For DICE Senior Producer Aleksander Grøndal, however, the experience has been just the opposite.

“This was liberating,” Grøndal told Digital Trends this month at a Battlefield 1 review event in Los Angeles. “The fact that we don’t have all the lock-on missiles and the blips and bloops and all that stuff is extremely liberating to me. I feel like there has been so much of that in modern games that you’re essentially just playing the HUD (heads-up display). And I really, personally, wanted to move away from just playing the HUD. I wanted to feel like I was there, I wanted to feel like I was immersed in the experience and not just in this perfect game world that you have like a second layer on top of that tells you what to do.”

Grøndal said Battlefield 1 arose out of DICE’s desire to do something new and different with its series, but even he wasn’t sure at first that World War I was the right setting for the game.

“When I first saw it, I knew that they [DICE’s Battlefield 1 team] were doing it, and I was a bit skeptical at first. I’ll admit that,” he said. “And as they’d kind of shown me all the things that existed, all the things that a Battlefield game needed — all the weapons and locations, all the vehicles — there was so much variety and so many things I didn’t know. Because I also was one of those people who was like, ‘Yeah, Western Front, black and white pictures, mud, trenches.’ That was my ignorant view of [World War I]. So it completely blew me away when I started opening these doors and reading up on everything that was happening, and seeing all these possibilities to make a game, because I was always looking at it from a game point of view.”

Setting Battlefield in World War I compelled DICE to make some technical changes to reflect the new setting. Most weapons have a shorter effective range than in past games, for instance, to bring players into tighter quarters and simulate the intensity and brutality of the Great War.

Balancing Battlefield bravado and World War I Brutality

Capturing the feeling of a war that fundamentally changed warfare — and saw tens of millions killed along the way — is also a focus in Battlefield 1. World War I is known as a bitter, horrific conflict that was devastating to all involved. Video games and shooters in particular, on the other hand, are often about giving players a chance to feel heroic. DICE dealt with those opposing forces by focusing on a tone in its story campaign that acknowledges the hell that was the Great War.

“I think always when we make a video game, we’re making a Battlefield game first.”

The opening prologue of the game, for instance, puts players into the middle of a battle as they try to fight off an enemy charge. They fight for as long as they can hold out, until they’re killed — at which point, the soldier’s name flashes across the screen with birth and death dates, before the player is whisked off to control another soldier fighting a desperate battle for survival, while voice-over narration sets the scene for a war that saw heroic acts, but was devoid of the glory so many thought they might find in it. The prologue builds a feeling of futility that persists in the other chapters of the campaign shown to journalists: Battlefield 1, as Grøndal said, isn’t a game about saving the world.

And though DICE didn’t necessarily make a historically account of the war, Battlefield 1 does feature a strong focus on history (and, potentially, alternate history). The new “Operations” multiplayer mode puts players into a version of real historical battles that stretch over multiple maps, with one team defending and one attacking in huge. It’s possible for teams to change the outcomes of these battles, taking them into speculative territory.

But of course, not everything is historically accurate.

“I think always when we make a video game, we’re making a Battlefield game first,” Grøndal explained. “I think that’s important to keep in mind. It’s a Battlefield game set in World War I, and already there, we kind of create some boundaries for ourselves. It’s a little bit crazy, it’s a little bit over the top with some of the action and things, but we really want to get to some believability in it. We felt that particularly with this setting, no one had really told the story, so we felt there was some responsibility on us to try and get across that, ‘Hey guys, this actually did happen.’”

Publisher Electronic Arts is offering subscribers to its Xbox One EA Access and PC Origin Access services a chance to play a portion of Battlefield 1 on Oct. 16, five days before the game’s full release. The “First Look Trial,” which DICE showed journalists at its review event, includes 10 hours of gameplay spread over five multiplayer maps and four modes, plus the prologue and one of the chapters of the single player campaign.

In those portions of the game, DICE’s emphasis on capturing the intensity, and futility, of World War I pays off — making Battlefield 1 feel like a big step forward for the series even as it goes a century into the past.